DoD decades behind private sector in recruiting talent for civilian jobs, study finds

DoD has about 15,000 people completely dedicated to finding and recruiting future members of the military. For its civilian workforce, there are almost none.

An influential Defense advisory board has a harsh critique of the Defense Department’s strategies for recruiting talent into its civilian ranks: There isn’t much of a strategy at all.

The new Defense Business Board (DBB) study also found the Pentagon, as a general matter, doesn’t have a discernable talent pipeline for civilians, and that little effort has been spent to market DoD as an attractive civilian employer. The board believes those and other factors put the department at a severe disadvantage to other employers, especially when it comes to mission-critical occupations with intense private sector competition, like nurses, software developers and logisticians.

According to research the board conducted for a forthcoming written report, DoD has about 15,000 people who work full time to recruit members of the military. But after seven months of study, the board could only identify about 100 people whose primary job it is to recruit civilians. About half of those are in the Air Force.

Instead, the “recruiting” task falls, by and large, to DoD’s HR specialists. But they have a lot of other responsibilities too, including posting jobs, developing HR policies and resolving personnel issues,  said Matthew Daniel, a member of the DBB task group who led the study.

“There is a difference to be drawn between filling positions and recruiting,” he said. “Today, the DoD fills civilian positions effectively, but there’s little recruiting actually happening.”

Daniel said the lack of a specific focus on recruiting stands in sharp contrast with the private employers DoD is competing with for talent.

“Private industry saw a war for talent decades ago, and they responded. They developed sophisticated recruiting machines. They specialized, and they continue to do so,” he said. “They don’t just have recruiters, they have recruiting ops positions who just handle scheduling and operations. They have sourcers who are proactively combing potential talent to create talent pools for future acquisitions, and brand and marketing specialists who are doing nothing but targeting talent with messages about the company’s mission and values, and priming them for when a position does open.”

Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of Defense, commissioned the DBB study last year. The full board approved the task group’s recommendations on Friday.

Among them: DoD needs to create a specialized cadre of civilian recruiters from within its own HR workforce. The board said the department also needs to focus on building talent pipelines that mirror the ones in private industry — actively cultivating future hires, not just waiting for people to apply for positions once they’re posted on USAJobs, the government’s main recruiting website.

Alex Alonso, another DBB task group member, and who also serves as the Chief Knowledge Officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, said there are some scattered examples of pipelines throughout the department.

“However, there is not a concerted effort to integrate all the current activities so that we maximize the productivity of existing resources,” he said. “We argue there’s an important component that really focuses on developing a workforce plan, but at the same time, also leveraging tools such as artificial intelligence to mine and analyze data that identifies where the highest-quality hires really come from. Some competitors have established talent pipelines that are capable of identifying talent, conducting interviews within 24 hours, and achieving a full offer within 48 hours of entry into the pipeline … they’re moving through a talent pipeline that allows them to leverage not just the individuals that have entered the pool, but also the individuals that have touched base with their organization in some way.”

DoD, and the federal government more generally, is not famous for quick hiring. The study found DoD’s current average time to hire civilians is 81 days. Although that’s down from a recent high of 99 days in 2018, the department hasn’t made much progress in reducing that number any further for the past three years.

Daniel said those delays have real consequences for DoD’s ability to compete for high-quality candidates.

“It’s a well-known problem in the community, and we heard that candidates get discouraged about having to use USAJobs. They feel like it’s a black hole and they won’t get a response,” he said. “Private industry is innovating on how to get hiring done more and more quickly, and in the time it takes to make a job offer from DoD, those candidates are ghosting DoD and taking private sector jobs. The sentiment quickly becomes, ‘If this is what it’s like to get a job here, what will it be like to work here?’”

The board said DoD also needs to focus on building an “employer brand,” and do a better job of communicating the Defense mission and the wide breadth of positions available throughout the civilian workforce.

The panel’s research showed about 42% of Americans don’t even know civil service jobs exist in DoD; those that do sometimes associate the work with wars they disagree with, or have adopted the stereotypes that government workers are incompetent or corrupt.

But there are certainly examples of other agencies that have overcome those challenges, Daniel said.

“NASA is a juxtaposition of DoD. They built their brand around being a place to come and solve big problems — they know the talent profile of the folks that they’re looking for. They want to solve gnarly problems, build experience and move on with their career. They’ve used that as a part of their employer brand in the market, and it’s how they’re delivering messages,” he said. “Based on our interviews with organizations who’ve struggled with employer brand, recruiters and sourcers have been given talking points on how to address candidate concerns head-on, and reshape the narrative with potential candidates. No such mechanism exists that we could find within the DoD, and there’s not necessarily a recruiter you could hand those talking points to today.”

The board found DoD also needs to do a much better job of gathering and using data about both its existing workforce and its future workforce needs. The study found the department doesn’t have a database to match skills with its job opportunities, and doesn’t have much in the way of metrics about the overall health of the workforce.

Daniel said that’s another key way in which DoD’s management of civilians differs from military members.

“On the military personnel side, there’s a platform called the Defense Readiness Reporting System that exists to help components track readiness against the national military strategy. It contains near real-time reporting, and we see this as a model that could be followed for civilian readiness,” he said. “As it stands today, civilian readiness is not measured nor factored into the total force readiness. There is much opportunity to take existing data and make it available more widely, hold leaders accountable for improving candidate experience, and drive better recruiting and richer pipelines.”

And the board thinks there are opportunities for the department to use some of the other structures it already has to improve civilian hiring.

For example, military recruiters could help get people into civil service positions in cases where they don’t meet the physical standards for uniformed service. And the existing population of retiring military members, in many cases, could be ideal candidates for civil service jobs. But the board found there’s good reason to believe DoD’s policy of requiring a six-month waiting period before military retirees can be hired as civilians causes a lot of talent to walk out the door.

“[That rule] was written for a reason; however, its impact on talent strategy cannot be overstated,” Daniel said. “DoD is investing tens of millions of dollars, if not more, on skills development and training, only to see them leave for the private industry because there is no option to stay. This is an area for robust piloting and testing. We saw some versions of testing on this in recent years, but we believe there is opportunity to do more.”

And in fact, the broader department may be poised to start doing more.

As part of the 2024 budget proposal DoD released this month, the Pentagon announced it would appoint its first-ever chief talent management officer to “lead development and execution of talent acquisition and management strategies” and “work across the Department to identify transformational changes across the entirety of talent management.”

Alonso said the new CTMO has the real potential to improve DoD’s talent pipeline, as long as the position has enough resources to gather and act on data, and has the authority to direct meaningful changes.

“This would entail revising organizational structures to allow for proper tasking, and more importantly, to allow for tasking the Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service (DCPAS), which currently sits under the undersecretary for personnel and readiness,” he said. “One of the things that stands out is that revising the structure would permit the CTMO the ability and the authority to direct DCPAS resources to build talent pipelines more effectively. This would in turn allow more effective building of talent pipelines and talent pools, but also grow the evaluation capabilities of the department.”



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